Afghanistan has a rich and diverse musical history, with influences incorporated from local folk cultures, the high classical traditions of the neighboring Indo-Persian worlds, and popular music from continents away. Unfortunately, that musical culture has also come under attack over and over.
Public performance and broadcasting was heavily regulated since well before the Taliban regime took over the country, but under their rule music was essentially banned. Nevertheless, the music was kept alive underground and in the diaspora, and now a vibrant music scene is re-emerging in the country.
Studying and making music was dangerous and difficult for all in the past. It remains so for many women and girls in Afghanistan who face cultural and religious pressures to conform to patriarchal norms of women’s public existence. As the duo 143BandMusic expressed to Kajal, “Making music now in Afghanistan is also much easier, comparing to the past, but it is still massively not accepted. And it is absolutely forbidden for females to make music in Afghanistan and to perform, and it is dangerous.”
Despite it all, there are several women at work today who are not only defying patriarchy through the act of making music, but who are actively calling out misogyny and gendered violence. Check out our roundup and follow these brave artists’ work:
Paradise Sorouri is credited with pioneering the trend of female rappers in Afghanistan, and is one-half of the group 143BandMusic, along with her fiancé Diverse. Their lyrics focus on gender violence, oppressive customs like polygamy, and the violence and corruption of the political scene in the country. Yet they also take care to make life-affirming records about love. They are based in Berlin, after relentless death threats and physical attacks, particularly directed at Paradise, forced them to flee Afghanistan.
Paradise and Diverse related that Berlin has been a great city for them to grow as artists and connect with other creative people, “We have already performed couple of gigs here in Berlin as well as other cities in Germany and even other countries in Europe,” they said.
“Now we are able to travel and make concerts and of course our audiences are increasing internationally. It is much easier for us to make and continue our career here in Berlin, such an artistic city.”
Soosan Firooz is one of the first female rappers in Afghanistan, along with Paradise Sorouri. She also performs political raps that rail against the mistreatment of women in the country and raise a voice of resistance. She was a featured artist in a 2015 episode of MTV’s Rebel Music, where she spoke about the difficulties of keeping herself and her supportive family safe amidst pervasive threats, and gave viewers an insight into her creative process.
Zeba Hamidi appeared on the popular singing competition, Afghan Star, in 2015–2016 for its 11th season. She made it to the Top 5 before being eliminated, as one of only two female contestants on the show, rapping her whole way through. Her success on this voter-decided show could be an encouraging sign for other politically minded female rappers in the country. For her last appearance as a contestant, Zeba performed Sonita’s ‘Brides for Sale.’
Sahar Arian, the other female contestant on Afghan Star’s 11th season, is more of an opera diva than a rapper. But she stirred controversy on the show when she performed a bold song about violence against women, with her face made up to look like that of an abused woman. She was voted off the show soon after that performance, suggesting that there is still a limit to the tenacity viewers are willing to tolerate from women artists. She later filmed a dramatic and upsetting music video for that song, seen above.
Sahar went against her family’s restrictions by studying music in secret, and she told Newsweek in 2016 that her conflict with family, and high profile incidents of violence against women, had inspired her to sing out about ‘the anger of all women in Afghanistan.’
The political and security situation in Afghanistan remains unstable, but the revival of music continues through the uncertainty, helped along by major media outlets like TOLO and its show Afghan Star, radio stations and organizations like the Afghan National Institute of Music. The women featured here have a big role to play as well.
143BandMusic noted that they get messages from young women in Afghanistan asking for advice about pursuing their musical goals.
“When we receive a message from a girl who asks us to help her with finding beat or correcting her text or when a girl wrote us that because of our Music her father let her go to university and follow her dream,” they said. “It is the most important and happiest thing that could happen.”